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O how the mighty...
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Summoning courage


O how the mighty...

I fall down once per winter. That’s been
my average ever since I bought my “Stabilicers”—big cleats that strap onto
the soles of my boots. They make walking
in the Skidmore woods virtually slip-proof,
but they’re too clunky to wear in many situations, so I still risk my neck getting to
and from the office or running errands. Even when I put my tai chi to work and adopt a ninja-crouching-tiger walk, slippery footing can upend me in a flash. So far I’ve been lucky and never got hurt. In fact, in that moment
of assessment on the ground, once it’s clear
no injury has been done, falling down becomes immediately, irrepressibly hilarious.

Any paroxysm of complete helplessness—sneezing, falling, laughing—tickles some primitive humor ganglia deep in my brainstem. Like sports, which ritualize our base, dark instincts of attack and
defense and relegate them to the safety of utter inconsequence, physical accidents that do no harm are fundamentally ludicrous. They spark urgent needs and dangers but quickly douse them in a damp fizzle; for me, they’re proof that a loss of control, even abject vulnerability, often imperils nothing but our
self-seriousness. Hence the stardom of Wile E. Coyote and the Keystone Kops: the more determined
(or complacent) we are about being vertical, the funnier it is when we capsize.

I always laugh when my dogs skid headlong and execute a classic face-plant in the snow. They’re usually breathtakingly athletic, so any lapse into ungainliness is a spectacular incongruity. But human wipeouts are frequently subtler, and more gratifying. In an old farm field decades ago, two friends and
I climbed onto a thigh-high stone wall and walked its length. Then, as if to a metronome, I matter-of-factly jumped down and stood waiting, friend No. 1 matter-of-factly jumped down and stood waiting, and friend No. 2 matter-of-factly jumped, caught her toe on a small ridge, pitched forward, and belly-flopped on the lawn at our feet, where, cushioned upon touchdown by her puffy winter parka, she bounced over onto her back. That image—and the side-splitting, gasping, eye-watering humor of it—still gladdens my heart.

Last year, in a campus parking lot patchy with black ice, I fell faster than a speeding synapse: my brain had no time to register the nanosecond of transition between striding and being spread-eagled on my back. I was still chatting with my companion until the moment of impact.

Even an unseen pratfall can be priceless. One winter at college, I took a history course from a dignified, nerdy professor who always carried a dorky old hard-shell briefcase. As class let out, we joined a long stream of foot traffic on a snow-packed campus path, he perhaps ten yards behind me. When I heard a thud and a grunt, I wondered who’d slipped and fallen back there. A second later, when I heard a skittery scraping noise rapidly gaining on me, I knew.

I didn’t even need the visual confirmation that followed: the signature briefcase scooting over the ice and whizzing past me into the crowd ahead.

I suppose it’s a miracle we don’t fall more, since bipedalism seems to defy the laws of physics. As it is, whether we fall in stages, over what seems like half an hour, or we meet the ground before we know
what hit us, it’s a preposterous situation. Adults are meant to be in control of their posture. When the
rug is yanked out from under our properly upright selves, it’s the purest farce, the lowest comedy, and
the simplest pleasure.

Let it snow. (And buy yourself a pair of Stabilicers.) —SR